Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Fueling the Car of Tomorrow: An Alternative Fuels Curriculum for High School Science Classes

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Fueling the Car of Tomorrow: An Alternative Fuels Curriculum for High School Science Classes

Article excerpt

It is no secret that many high school students are fascinated with automobiles. Cars are a big part of their lives--evoking excitement, curiosity, and perhaps even a certain amount of anxiety. The activities in Fueling the Car of Tomorrow--a free high school science curriculum, available online (see "On the web")--capitalize on this heightened awareness and provide relevant learning opportunities designed to reinforce basic physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics principles. The curriculum consists of 17 activities that can serve as a resource for science classes or as the basis of an entire course; each activity is also explicitly tied to state and national science standards (NRC 1996).

The process

We--a team of five faculty members in biology, chemistry, and mechanical engineering and the director of precollege programs in the College of Engineering and

Science at the University of Detroit Mercy--developed the Fueling the Car of Tomorrow curriculum. We began by compiling a list of topics we thought the curriculum should cover; these included

* biological mechanisms governing the production of biofuels;

* the chemistry of combustion, pollution, and biofuel manufacture;

* hydrogen generation; and

* various technological aspects of energy conversion systems, internal combustion engines, and hybrid and electric vehicles.


Each of us identified key learning outcomes for several topics and then--often with the help of our undergraduate students--embarked on a multiyear effort to develop the activities. To ensure uniform presentation, we used the format indicated in Figure 1 for each of the activities.

We then piloted the curriculum through the Detroit Area Precollege Engineering Program (DAPCEP), which offers classes for K--12 students at the University of Detroit Mercy on Saturdays during the school year and on weekdays in the summer. Over the last three years, several of the Fueling the Car of Tomorrow activities have been used in these classes; based on these offerings, curriculum adjustments were made as needed.

Evaluations of one of the DAPCEP classes, Powering the Car of Tomorrow, indicate that students were pleased with their experience (Figure 2, p. 54). In addition to these offerings, two local public high school teachers tested most of the activities and provided valuable formative feedback.

The curriculum

The 17 activities in Fueling the Car of Tomorrow were designed for students with rudimentary algebra and general science knowledge. Most of the activities are laboratory exercises, but some are analytical explorations using spreadsheets, computer simulations of "what if" scenarios, group brainstorming sessions, and pencil-and-paper calculations. The activities can be offered individually as supplements to biology, chemistry, or engineering classes and completed in one or two class periods, or the entire series can form the basis of a semester-long or even year-long preengineering course.

Figure 3 (p. 55) lists the types of activities, their associated disciplines, and brief descriptions. The order given is a suggested--but not essential--sequence for delivery. Each of the activities also has a set of learning outcomes with clear linkages to the National Science Education Standards and state science and mathematics standards (NRC 1996; Figure 4, p. 56). The state linkages apply to Michigan, but most states have similar guidelines.

The first three activities in the curriculum, "Introduction to Alternative Fuels," "Nonrenewable Energy Resource Depletion," and "Fundamentals of Internal Combustion Engine Operation," are introductory exercises that provide students with the background needed for the remaining activities. The following sections describe these activities in more detail.

Introduction to Alternative Fuels

In the first activity, students are prompted to think about how a vehicle is propelled and brainstorm possible fuel and energy conversion systems. …

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